Cloud Atlas: Queering Space & Time

April 15, 2017 § 7 Comments


“Cloud Atlas” movie poster. Copyright Warner Bros.

Let’s be honest. Cloud Atlas — both Cloud Atlas the book and “Cloud Atlas” the movie — is dense. It’s complicated, and it’s almost dizzying in scope. I know of no other work of art that has covered as many facets of the human experience: life and death, love and greed.

The book is a masterpiece, and yet author David Mitchell said writing it was like a “walk in the park” compared to the Wachowskis’ work in filming the movie. In using the same actors in multiple roles (see chart below) while shooting in three different countries, the directors needed to create a detailed filming schedule. In addition to disguising actors as different genders, ethnicities, and ages, the directors also re-purposed buildings and interiors to give viewers an uncanny sense of familiarity across the changing time periods and plots.

Not surprisingly, the movie was so confusing to most viewers that it flopped at the box office, exceeding its production budget by only $28 million (in comparison, the first Matrix film netted nearly $400 million). Indeed, when I went to see the film on Election Day in 2012, less than a dozen people occupied the theater hall. And when the credits started rolling, one of my fellow movie-goers nearly shouted, “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen!” before exiting the theater.

The Wachowskis knew the film was a financial risk. Likewise, the big-name Hollywood actors (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant) did not expect the film to be the next big hit. But they were compelled to join the cast for the artistic thrill of such a complex project. In a featurette accompanying the DVD release, Halle Berry said, “It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime filmmaking experience. I will never be a part of another film like this in my life. I know it.”

Defined by both content and context

The movie is an artistic thrill, for sure. But its importance as a film goes beyond its production value: it speaks to the importance of all human life, especially in the face of both systematic and subtle oppression.

Check out this chart to see which characters are played by the same actors over the six stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant are featured in all six. 


Here’s a breakdown of the oppression in each of the stories (spoiler alert!):

1849: Race

Situation: The Moriori are enslaved by the Maori in the Chatham Islands; black slaves are sold to plantation owners on both sides of the Pacific

Outcome: An escaped slave saves protagonist Adam Ewing’s life; he becomes an abolitionist

1936: Sexuality

Situation: Queer musician Robert Frobisher is disowned by father and shunned by intellectual society for his “liaisons with prostitutes and sodomites”

Outcome: He commits suicide after finishing the Sextet

1973: Gender

Situation: Journalist is disrespected because she is a woman. Lloyd Hooks tell “Ms. Rey,” “If all women looked like you, I might start to take this ‘women’s lib’ thing more seriously.”

Outcome: She lives up to her father’s legacy as a journalist by whistle-blowing a conspiracy by Big Oil

2012: Age

Situation: Elderly people lose their rights while living in a senior-living home; exemplified by Denholme Cavendish who says, “You wouldn’t believe how much people will pay to lock up their parents.”

Outcome: A group of the trapped residents successfully plot to escape

2144: Genetics

Situation: Cloned humans (“Fabricants”) are treated like machines with no civil rights in the service of ‘natural’ humans (“consumers”)

Outcome: One of the Fabricants becomes the voice of a movement to overthrow the corpocratic government

2321: Tribal Factions, “us versus them”

Situation: A cannibalistic tribe preys upon the herding tribe; Zach’ry brings a strong distrust to his interactions with Meronym, a “Prescient.” When Zach’ry pleads for his niece’s healing, he says, “Ain’t a Valleysman life worth th’same as a Prescient’s?”

Outcome: The cannibals are defeated; mocha-brown children have populated an off-world colony after their grandparents fled radioactive Earth

(Note: I have to point out that the movie also features the trauma people have inflicted upon the natural environment, such as rising sea levels in Neo Seoul and the radioactive post-apocalyptic Earth.)

So, on one level, the movie’s content speaks to the tragedies that happen when people take advantage of other people. But on another level, the movie’s context also contributes this major theme, as represented by Frobisher’s idea that “all boundaries are conventions”.

Let’s start with the directors. When they became famous in the 90s, the Wachowskis were known as “The Wachowski Brothers” in Hollywood, since the siblings were born male. One of the siblings, Lana, had already transitioned when they were filming “Cloud Atlas.” Then, in March 2016, the other sibling came out as trans. In a statement, Lilly Wachowski wrote about the difficulty of being trans in today’s world:

We live in a majority-enforced gender binary world. This means when you’re transgender you have to face the hard reality of living the rest of your life in a world that is openly hostile to you. … But these words, “transgender” and “transitioned” are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to “transition” imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.

Indeed, the lack of acceptance of trans people into mainstream Western society echoes the other forms of oppression featured in “Cloud Atlas” that are based on central facets of identity, including race, age, and sexuality. But Lilly pushes the discussion about conventions beyond these dimensions of identity. She suggests that our Western conventions about time and space are in themselves oppressive. In her statement, Lilly Wachowski cites critic José Muñoz, who wrote, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality for another world.”

For me, this statement sharpens the themes of “Cloud Atlas.” In its representation of souls and relationships who return again and again in new lives, the film literally rejects our conventional sense of the importance of the “here and now” while insisting on “potentiality for another world.” Even in our darkest hours, the film suggests, there is reason to believe that we might find a brighter, better world waiting for us on the other side.

By Alisha Newton


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§ 7 Responses to Cloud Atlas: Queering Space & Time

  • Emmie Kline says:

    I thought the movie version of Cloud Atlas offered a superb and very clear take on the messages and themes communicated in the book. The film clearly required a massive amount of coordination in fitting all separate elements together with a sense of connection and continuity throughout. The fact you’ve highlighted about the film’s relatively small earnings compared to its massive budget is particularly interesting; if I had not read or studied the novel and its extremely poignant themes, I don’t know that I would have appreciated the film the way I do at the moment. Too often we write science fiction films off as simple or not profound, and when this expectation of the genre is confounded by a complicated premise or intricate plot as in Cloud Atlas, we immediately write it off. Additionally, the film’s difficulty at the box office has significant implications for the cinematic industry; intellectually complex or complicated films may not earn enough gross profits to incentivize production. Instead, we choose interesting, yet relatively simple films with stock characters and theme. This is not an incorrect choice, or necessarily a bad one, but this phenomenon does force me to wonder if society misses out on fantastic movies because of our lack of patience with their complexity or advanced nature.
    I really enjoyed the film and especially appreciated the directors’ choices to nearly seamlessly interweave six plots in a way that made sense and actually contributed to my overall understanding and appreciation of the film’s messages and themes. It differed from the book, which is always a risk, but for this medium, I felt it was done flawlessly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alison Maas says:

      I agree that often complex plots, especially in science fiction films, may lead to less “popular” movies. Still, what I found most interesting about the movie was the choice to interweave the plots, as you say. I remember the first day we discussed “Cloud Atlas” the book, someone commented that after they had read the book, the plot made more sense as the stories were more streamline. I think it was an interesting choice from the director to continue to interweave the plots, even complicating them more. I agree that the different interweaving of plot was “a risk” and that for this medium that it was “done flawlessly.” Still, I think that may have contributed to some of the confusion with the movie. To me, this use of plot was intriguing and exciting, however, I see how to others it might be disjointed and confusing. I think it was a risky choice to approach the plot as the director did, yet, it enhanced the moviegoing experience, at least for me.


  • maplesmm says:

    I agree with Emmie – the movie did a wonderful job of incorporating the themes presented in the novel. And, as a stand alone movie, it also cleverly told a very difficult story. I first saw the movie years ago, before I’d even heard of the book. However, I really appreciated the “recycling” of actors and actresses and the effect that had on visually explaining the interconnectedness of lives. I believe that’s a subtle but effective means of nodding to that notion. In terms of the “movie versus book” debate, I preferred the way that the Wachowskis were able to indirectly incorporate that very important element into the storyline.


    • On the subject of “movie versus book” I wonder if the mistake we often make as a society is adapting entire books instead of focusing in on an excerpt. Often, a well-constructed book contains enough material for several films, especially if your goal as a filmmaker is to do justice to the thematic richness of a text. For example, over spring break I saw “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” a musical adaptation of 60 pages of “War and Peace.” Because of the limited scope of the musical, the writers were able to tell one story well, instead of trying to tell enough of the whole novel’s narrative to hit the high points of the plot. When you feel a need to adapt a whole work, you have to focus much more on plot events, rather than the significance and subtleties of developments with character. Yes, the Wachowski’s did an admirable job with a book that borders on being unfilmable, but I wonder if the initial assumption of “we must adapt the whole thing” backed them into a corner creatively.

      Liked by 1 person

  • gsbendik says:

    I think your post is very insightful and I appreciate how clearly you mapped out the connections between characters and periods. Looking at the consistent underdog story that interweaves its way throughout both the movie and the book makes me think more so about human nature as its always been (if we assume it has always been a “way”) versus the technological advancements in the book. The tagline on the poster is–“Everything is connected,” and obviously this is seen through the recycled characters, but it is also seen through the consistent need marginalized groups face to escape oppression. What is it about humans that make us want to marginalize the different, the vulnerable, and quite often, use them to our own benefit, like the slaves in the 1800s and the Fabricants in the future? The piece about agism is also very interesting and how we “lock up” our elderly in homes, because this is a very western-specific thing, given that the Chinese have a culture where the elderly are held in the upmost respect. So in that regard, this selfishness, this disregard, cannot be seen as “human nature,” but rather, maybe, a product of western consumerism, of western capitalism. To always want something new. To move on to something better. The strong shall eat and the weak are meat.

    Is there something wrong with how we are looking at life? Is it too late to try to reform philosophical attitudes, especially when marginalized groups continue to face real life consequences of prejudice and hate?


  • bkcallander says:

    I agree that each separate storyline approaches unique themes of oppression and demonstrate different methods in which society controls people. However, I felt far more compelled by how each story attacked the human condition. Littered throughout all six section, I felt that the movie eloquently explored human failings above all. The movie starts and ends with cannibalism, reducing the human experience to the basal need to survive. But I thought it incredibly compelling how they told each story in between. We see a time of great discovery and creation with Robert Frobisher’s symphony, which becomes tainted with violence. Then Luisa fights to understand the human condition, valuing truth over everything. But this curiosity breaks down when Timothy Cavendish happily accepts material gain over his academic literary pursuits. This greed leads to an ethical collapse in Somni. Then ultimately we return to where we began in a post-apocalyptic world. Though I thought the film was clunky at moments, I did feel that circular progression of the human identity resonated well and I certainly feel less optimistic about the future of the human race.

    Liked by 1 person

  • mihirakonda says:

    I really enjoyed your queer analysis of Cloud Atlas. I think the Wachowskis’ (and Tykwer’s) structural interpretation of the novel more effectively blurs the boundaries between the different stories than the novel itself, with the voice of one character overlaying scenes from other time periods and the rapid back-and-forth between the six stories. However, by presenting different forms of oppression in each story and showing that the same story essentially repeats itself over and over again throughout history, is the movie making a pessimistic statement about the nature of humankind? I don’t think it’s that simple because, as you note, each of these stories documents a kind of defeat of the oppressive system. I wonder how the relatively positive outcomes in each of these stories should be reconciled with the fact that these stories of oppressions seem inescapable throughout history.


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